48 Hours in Istanbul

Would you like to visit one of the world's most amazing cities right on the Europe-Asia border? Is exploring the Princes Islands on your bucket list? Do you want to know more about family attractions around Istanbul? How about getting some restaurant and hotel recommendations for the area too? If so, read about our forty-eight-hour whistle stop exploration of Istanbul to help plan your own escape to this glorious city.

Whether it's a short 24-hour stopover or a lengthier sojourn, Istanbul has enough attractions to keep every type of visitor fully occupied for their entire stay. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it offers a cultural mix unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. Turkish Airlines' rapid expansion in recent years has brought more and more tourists to the city, but it's huge and diverse enough to handle hundreds of thousands more. In fact, the airline is really pushing the stopover concept on its customers, attempting to imitate Dubai's success as a global transfer hub. While some might say you need longer, Istanbul is an ideal 24-48-hour stopover destination. Go there soon, on your way to another exciting destination or for an extended city break.

Stopover Istanbul

Our family journey through the Balkan states of Albania and Kosovo began in the small fishing village of Overstrand. Three days earlier, we had said a temporary goodbye to our Saudi Arabian life and reunited with extended family in England but now it was time to hit the road properly. From Overstrand, we got a lift to Norwich, hopped aboard a National Express coach to London, then transferred onto another coach to Gatwick Airport. While Gatwick is always the worst airport for us to travel to, the multi-stop cheap fare we had booked a few months ago with Turkish Airlines made it more than worthwhile. Anyway, after a three-hour wait, the first plane of our three-part plane journey took off just ahead of schedule and headed south east towards Istanbul. Four and a half hours later, at 1 a.m., we arrived at Ataturk Airport, swiftly cleared immigration and grabbed a taxi to our home for three nights: Berk Guesthouse.

Where to stay in Istanbul

Whatever you're looking for in terms of accommodation, Istanbul truly offers it all. From restored Ottoman Palaces to super modern architectural gems, splendid hotels  are available across the city if money is no object. Alongside such indulgent abodes, Sultanhmet has plenty of characterful, affordable apartments and rooms along its cobbled streets. Because of its sea-view balcony and rave reviews, we chose the centrally located Berk Guesthouse (see room picture above), which cost just fifty pounds ($66) per night for a triple room with balcony view and including breakfast. Double rooms start from 32 pounds ($43) a night. If you're looking for a real personal touch, Berk Guesthouse is definitely the place to be. Their management greeted us with wide smiles at 2 a.m. upon arrival, and personally put us into a taxi and waved us off at 4.30 a.m two days later. What more can you ask for? In addition, the comfortable room, awesome location, adequate breakfast and stunning rooftop view made it a perfect Istanbul base for us.

If you prefer independence and cooking yourself, then check Airbnb Istanbul apartments. Alternatively, for a really romantic night or two, we'd recommend the fantastic Four Seaons Sultanhmet. Offering just sixty-five guest rooms in a neoclassical setting, it's an incredible place to stay. Sadly, our budget didn't stretch to a night here, but we did have drinks and snacks at their phenomenal A'Ya rooftop lounge (see places to eat below).

Five Awesome Things to Do in Istanbul

1. Hike the Princes' Islands

Ironically, one of the best things to do in Istanbul is to leave the city behind and take a slow ferry to the Princes' Islands: a cluster of 9 islands off the Asian shores of Istanbul. Only four of the islands accept visitors. Ferries depart several times a day from Eminonu and Kabatas piers, stopping off at each of the four, Buyukada, Heybeliada, Kinaliada and Burgazada, before returning to Istanbul. All motorized vehicles are banned, so whichever one you choose will be a peaceful oasis. Hire a bike, go hiking, enjoy a horse and cart ride or just hang out at one of the sea front restaurants.  While the inclement weather made our visit to Heybeliada slightly challenging, we hiked a good portion of the southern part of the island, managed a quick swim, and warmed up with a pizza and coffee. It was one of the highlights of our 48 hours in Istanbul.

2. Visit Hagia Sophia

Don't miss the opportunity to check out Hagia Sophia's interior, consisting of incredible domes and ancient mosaics - it's a true wonder of the world. A museum since 1935, its been an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral and a mosque during its turbulent history. Unless you enjoy long queues, get an advance ticket 40TL (7 Euro) or take a group tour to jump ahead of the inevitable crowds.

3. Revel inside the Blue Mosque

Probably Istanbul's most iconic attraction, the Blue Mosque is both an active place of worship and a well-deserved tourist attraction. Take pictures in the spectacular courtyard area before going inside. Women need a hijab (head covering) to enter the mosque itself so either bring a scarf or borrow a hijab for free. My wife Miras sported one of her Saudi hijabs for the visit and we particularly enjoyed shooting pictures in the courtyard.

4. Experience Legoland & Istanbul Aquarium

Get a joint ticket (approx €15) for Istanbul's Legoland and the aquarium at Istanbul's Forum's entrance. Well worth a few hours of exploration, especially for fairly young kids. Raf loved the extensive range of rides, exhibitions and creative corners inside Legoland and we all loved the nicely organised aquarium. It's fairly easy to reach the Forum using public transport, but we decided on a taxi (€10 each way) to save time.

5. Grand Bazaar

Home to more than 3,000 shops, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a great place to test out your bargaining skills. Set across 61 streets, this maze of carpets, ceramics, silverware, spices and clothes is a must-see when in Istanbul. Even if you're not that keen on weighing your travel bag down with souvenirs, it's a terrific place to get lost in traditional Turkish culture. While it's not an ideal thing to do for families with young children, stop by for an hour or two so you still get to experience it.

Three Amazing Places to Eat in Istanbul

As you'd expect for a city of its size, you can get pretty much anything you want in terms of food in Istanbul. Turkish food conflates seasonal vegetables with meat, especially lamb. You can expect the best kebabs in the world here. Being on the coast, it also offers a range of fresh seafood dishes. You can expect to pay €5-10 for meat/vegetable dishes, €15-25 for fish dishes, and less than €10 for a whole pizza. Due to time restrictions, we didn't have too much time to explore the cuisine scene of Istanbul, but we'd definitely recommend checking out A'ya and Turk Art for ambiance and Yaka Balik for pricey seafood with a view.

1. A'Ya Rooftop Lounge, Four Seasons Sultanahmet

Overlooking the iconic Hagia Sophia, the A'Ya Rooftop Lounge is the perfect place to start an evening in Istanbul. Located within Four Seasons Hotel Sultanhmet's complex, the surprisingly friendly staff serve up myriad drinks and upmarket snack offerings from 6 p.m. daily, weather depending, while a DJ keeps your ears busy with an array of lounge classics. We met friends here and enjoyed wine, juice, water and a couple of appetizers: hummus and calamaris. Although it was a bit expensive, the killer view and perfect atmosphere allowed us to kick back, escape the bustle and take in Istanbul's amazing vibe.

2. Turk Art Terrace Restaurant, Sultanhmet

Located just across the street from Four Seasons, Turk Art Terrace's restaurant provides the same awesome view with more affordable eating options. Alongside Turkish classics, the menu also includes a few European favourites, so it was enough to please our party of six. The kind staff even dug out some blankets for Miras and Raf, so they remained warm despite the plummeting evening temperatures.

3. Yaka Balik, Galata Bridge

Everyone loves a great fish restaurant and Yaka Balik, in the middle of Galata Bridge, ticks quite a few boxes. It offers an excellent range of seafood, swift and friendly service, and an unreal view over the Bosphorus, which makes it the ideal lunchtime spot for a family or couple looking for a break from wandering around. Fish mains cost from €15, appetizers around €5-€8 and beer and wine from €4. While all the restaurants under Galata Bridge are obviously tourist traps, we found Yaka's comfortable seating, great views and tasty seafood options just about worth the €80+ final bill.

Follow in our footsteps

– To get to Istanbul, start with skyscanner to find the cheapest international flight options. You can fly to the city direct from all European capitals. Istanbul currently has two main airports: Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen. However, a huge new airport has just opened to replace Ataturk. Try to avoid Sabiha Gokcen because it's way out of the city and inconveniently located.

– How about a cross-country train trip after exploring Istanbul? For example, trains leave every night from Istanbul for Sofia (€18 one way), from where you could follow in our footsteps and embark on an Eastern European Escapade to Belgrade, Montenegro, Bucharest and beyond.

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation options in Istanbul and beyond. It makes sense to book ahead using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) to ensure you get the right place for a much-reduced rate compared to walk-in.

– To book Berk Guesthouse's check their own website for bookings or reserve your room with them using booking.com.

Video Highlights


Popular Posts